I have just finished reading Jean Francois Lyotard’s seminal work The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. His writing essentially deals with how the current society (in the late 1970’s) espouses to gain knowledge, the breakdown of the metanarrative, and the shift towards a computerized reality. Interestingly enough, it seems that exactly what Lyotard was anticipating in the 1970’s for today’s society has seemingly come to fruition in our present generation. Thus, I thought some of our cyber-dwelling readers may be fascinated by his Postmodern prophecies come true. In my particular position as a student of the humaniites/social sciences, I am a bit worried by his insight.
(In the following I’d like touch on his thoughts on the metanarrative, the computerization of society, and where he foresaw Academia heading.)
A Quick Overview:
Lyotard’s work is commonly known as a catalyst of Postmodern thought (I am currently trying to survey Postmodern/Continental philosophy myself. Hence my reading this book.) He wanted to argue for the break down and rejection of metanarratives, or (aka) overarching stories that the whole of a society/culture accepts, believes to be universal, and thus governs itself upon. An example would be Capitalism, Christianity, and/or Freedom here in the US. He argues that the legitimation of these Grand or Meta- narratives is an impossible feat and thus they must be done away with (he illustrates this with Marxism leading to the phenomenon of Stalin’s Totalitarianism). A richer introduction of Lyotard’s work is given here.
Lyotard’s work worries me, but not for the classic reasons people worry about Lyotard’s work. Usually one worries about Lyotard’s rejection of the metanarrative they hold to be self-evident. As I have usually heard it in my context, some Conservative and Fundamentalist Christians worry about a rejection of their metanarrative because without the universality of their particular nuanced version of Christianity, they believe their whole worldview crumbles. I would argue that these types are very much entitled to their beliefs and views on the universal nature of their narrative, but as I’ve seen, they sometimes hold all the particulars a bit too tight and act as though if the slightest part of their narrative is refuted, the whole thing is somehow worthless. Thus, a “fight against” mentality occurs. This is not my worry.
No, Lyotard’s work worries me for different reasons. Let me expound a bit more for a moment.
The Computerization of Society
Lyotard originally wrote this as a presentation to the Coseil des Universities of the government of Quebec as per a request from their president. Lyotard was commission due to the changing postmodern ethos of the late 1970’s that was shifting toward what he calls the “Cybernetic” age, which essentially refers to the birthing of a computerized society that brings local communities into a greater global community. Lyotard saw the burgeoning computerization of information, commerce, capital, and communication in the world and regarded said burgeoning as only the beginning of a complete shift towards a computerized world (turns out he was correct! You’re reading this, right?!).
Part of this shift is essentially what onsets my plight. Lyotard explains the “Performativity Principle.” This is the principle that, in the changing computerized culture, all that will be invested in and given credence to, are those things that are performative. These performative things have certain functions that essentially make them a means to an end. The manifestation of these performatives finds its way into society for the production and reproduction of capital. Thus, a society is birthed that is driven by capital and power, performing only those feats that lead to these ends. (I see a connection here with Nietszche’s “Will to Power” motif. See post below)
Social Scientists Need Not Apply
Furthermore, Lyotard sees a shift in how the educational system is conceived of and governed due to the Performativity Principle. Problematic for me is the fact that I am a grad student of the humanities/social sciences in this Cybernetic Performative age. In this age the philosopher, theologian, anthropologist, sociologist, etc., are marginalized in the university because their “perfomance” is not very lucrative. The philosopher does not bring in the bucks and drive phat cars (are we still using “phat” these days?). The philosopher comments on the drivers of phat cars. The philosopher asks the basic questions of reality (metaphysics) and seeks an understanding of how we should simply, do society (government, ethics, economics).
Thus, the university becomes (has become) a place driven by capital as well. Liberal arts educations decline, we focus scientific research on those things that bring money to the university, professionals increase, and the influx of business majors into the collegiate setting becomes (became) the vast milieu. And here I sit and write, a student, who has never cared much about the professional business world, hoping that there still may be a teaching job for me when I graduate.
Do you think our society still has a place for the not-so-lucrative folks?
Submitted by: Ckcasselman